The French Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins
The shadows were beginning to lengthen across the valley as the Ark rounded a bend in the stream and the little church spire of Fontanelle came into view. "There it is--at last!" cried Mother Meraut. "Thank God, something of the village still stands!" She gazed eagerly into the distance. "And there is the Chateau," she added joyfully, pointing to a large gray stone building half hidden by a fringe of trees. "Oh, surely things are not going to be so bad as I had feared. Hurry! hurry! It seems as though my heart must take wings and fly before my body, now that we are so near!"
Father Meraut bent to the oars. "I will stay with the boat while you and the children go to the village," he said, when, a few moments later, he found a favorable spot to land.
Mother Meraut was out of the boat almost before it was beached, the Twins sprang out after her, and the three started up the road to the village on a run. Groves of trees just bursting into leaf lay between them and the one street of the little town, and it was not until they had passed it that they could tell how much damage had been done. The sight that met their eyes as they entered the village was not reassuring, but, hoping against hope, they ran on to the little house which had been Mother Meraut's childhood home. At the threshold they paused, and the tears which Mother Meraut had resolutely refused to shed when she had said good-by to her own home in Rheims fell freely as she gazed upon the ruins of the home of her parents. The house was empty, the windows were gone, the door was wrenched from its hinges, and the roof was open to the sky. The whole village was in much the same condition. Every house was empty, the street deserted.
Neither Mother Meraut nor the Twins said a word. With heavy hearts they turned from the gaping doorway and started toward the Chateau, which lay half a mile beyond the village. Not a soul did they meet until they arrived at the great gate which marked the entrance to the park, and then they saw that the Chateau too had suffered. It had been partly burned out, but as its walls were standing and one wing looked habitable, their spirits rose a little. At the gate a child was playing. They stopped. "Can you tell me, ma petite," said Mother Meraut, her voice trembling, "whether there is any one here by the name of Jamart?"
"Mais--oui," answered the child, surveying the strangers with curiosity. "Voila!" She pointed a stubby finger toward the Chateau, and there, just disappearing behind a corner of the wall, was the bent figure of an old woman carrying a pail of water.
With a cry of joy, Mother Meraut sprang forward, and Pierre and Pierrette for once in their lives, run as they would, could not keep up with her. She fairly flew over the ground, and when the Twins at last reached her side, the pail of water was spilled on the ground, and the two women were weeping in each other's arms. An old man now came toward them and the children flung themselves upon him. "Grandpere! Grandpere!" they shouted, and then such another embracing as there was!
Grand'mere kissed the Twins, and Grandpere hugged Mother Meraut, and then, because the tears were still running down their cheeks, Grandpere pointed to the overturned pail, and the water flowing in little wiggling streams through the dust. "Come, dear hearts," he cried, "are these your tears? Weep no more, then, lest we have a flood after our fire! This is a time to rejoice! Wipe your eyes, my Antoinette, and tell us how you came here. It is as if the sky had opened to let down three angels--and where, then, is Jacques?"
By this time a group of people had gathered about them--the little remnant of the old prosperous village of Fontanelle. "Here we are, you see," said Grandpere, "all that are left of us. Every able-bodied young woman was driven away by the Germans to work in their fields--while ours lie idle. Every able-bodied man is in the army. There are only twenty-seven of us left--old women, children, and myself. There you have our history."
Mother Meraut shook each old friend by the hand, looked at all the babies and children, and proudly showed her Twins to them in return, before she said a word about the sorrows they had endured in Rheims, and the desperation which had at last driven them from their home. The people listened without comment. They had all suffered so much that there was no room left in their hearts for new grief, but when she told them of the boat and her lame husband they rejoiced with her that she had the happiness at least of a united family. There was plenty of room in their hearts for joy! "Come with us," they said. "We cannot be poorer. Our cattle are driven away; we have no strong laborers to till our fields, no seeds to plant in them. We live in one wing and the outhouses of the Chateau, but hope is not yet dead, and your hands are strong. Your husband, too, can help, and we shall be at least no worse off for your being here."
Grand'mere spoke. "We live in the cow-stalls of the stable," said she. "It is not so bad; there is still hay in the loft, and there are other stalls not occupied."
Mother Meraut crossed herself. "If the Blessed Mother of Our Lord could live in a stable," she said, "such shelter is surely good enough for us."
Father Meraut, sitting patiently in the boat, was surprise, a little later as he looked anxiously toward the village, to see a crowd of people coming toward him, waving caps and hands in salutation. Before the others ran Pierre and Pierrette, and when they reached him they poured forth a jumble of excited words, from which he was able to gather that Grandpere and Grand'mere were alive and well, and that there was a place for them to stay. He got out of the boat to greet the people, and their willing hands took the bundles and helped hide the Ark in the bushes, and the whole company then started back to the Chateau, Grandpere lingering behind the others to keep pace with the slow progress of Father Meraut.
When Grand'mere, the Twins, and their Mother reached the stable they took their bundles from the hands of their friends, and went in to inspect their new home. The stable had been swept and scrubbed until it was as clean as it could be made. The large box stall served as a bedroom for Grand'mere and Grandpere. Above their bed of hay, covered with old blankets and quilts, was hung a wooden crucifix. This, with two boxes for seats, was all the furniture it contained. A few articles of clothing hung about on nails, and in the open space before the stalls a stove was placed, the pipe running through a pane of glass in a window near by.
When Grandpere and Father Meraut arrived, Mother Meraut met them at the door. "Behold our new apartment!" she said, and she led her husband to one of the clean stalls, where she had already begun to set up housekeeping. The Twins were at that moment in the loft overhead, getting hay for their beds, and Jacqueline, exhausted by her journey, had been put to bed in the manger.
Father Meraut looked about. "This is not bad for the summer," he said, "and who knows what good luck may come to us by fall? Perhaps the Germans will be driven out of France by that time, and surely we shall be able to do some planting even now."
"We have dug up the ground for gardens as best we could with the few tools we have," said Grandpere. "The government would send us seeds, but the roads are very bad, and we have no horses, and supplies are hard to get even though we have money to pay for them. The nearest town where provisions can be obtained lies six miles below, at the mouth of the river, and it is very little one can carry on one's back."
"Is there no way to get help from the soldiers' camp?" asked Father Meraut. "They must get supplies."
"Yes, but they cannot of themselves at this time take care of the civilian population," said Grandpere. "There are many villages in the same condition, and the soldiers' business is to fight for France."
"True," said Father Meraut. Then he exclaimed: "I have it! The Ark! It will indeed be our salvation as it was Father Noah's."
Grandpere looked anxiously at Mother Meraut and touched his forehead. "He is not mad?" he asked.
She laughed. "The name of our boat is the Ark," she explained. "We can use it to go down the river to buy provisions if there are any to be had."
Grand'mere, who had been listening, looked cautiously about, then felt under the straw of her bed and brought out a stocking. "See!" she said. "I have money. The others have money too, but of what use is money when there is nothing to buy and no place to buy it?"
"We must find a place to buy things," said Mother Meraut with decision. "Grandpere and Jacques can take the Ark and go down the river on a voyage of discovery, and bring back the supplies that we most need."
After supper the whole village gathered about the stable door to hear all the news which the Meraut family had brought from the outside world. For months they had not seen a newspaper, and there had been no visitors in Fontanelle. And when Father Meraut had finished telling them all the story of Rheims, of the burning of the Cathedral, of the miraculous safety of the statue of Saint Jeanne, of his own escape, and the final destruction of the roof over their heads, and their flight from the city, the pressing needs of the little village and his and Grandpere's proposed voyage were discussed, and it was very late when at last the people separated and the little village settled down for the night.